I was in New Delhi when 'Paan Singh Tomar' was released. There was a multiplex at Nehru Place, and it was barely 15 minutes walk from where I was staying in Greater Kailash (GK 1). There was some technical disruption while running the movie, and a bearded young man, a thin boy, and some others were just as vocal in asking for a replay. Shouting at the theatre manager together created a sort of instant bond. Consequently, four people from the audience settled into Mc Donald's downstairs after the show was over. We talked about Paan Singh, sports, government neglect of sports, the beautiful landscape of Chambal, the link between geography and cultures, and then got into a massive debate on spiritual questions.
None of us remember each others names, and we never met again. But we did have an interesting conversation, thanks to Paan Singh.
As an Indian, it is difficult to decide what India is. Is it the first map we learned to draw in school? Is it supporting Indian cricketers? Hoisting the flag on 15th of August and singing the national anthem correctly? Is India a Goddess, the Bharat Mata, or a fully filmy mom like 'Mother India'? Nargis Dutt, as Congress MP, bashed Satyajit Ray's 'Pather Panchali' for "selling a poverty stricken image of India to the West". The true India, she said, had something to do with "development, like roads and dams".
'Mother India' poster
I watched 'Mother India' from an old video tape with a Punjabi friend in her Kolkata apartment. I've watched
'Pather Panchali' Photo Courtesy : Satyajit Ray Society
'Pather Panchali' many times, but the first was as an impressionable teenager from the TV set that my father's aunt owned. The last film I watched before leaving Kolkata in February 2006 was 'Rang De Basanti'. I was headed towards New Delhi, to get a thorough check-up for serious neurological problems at AIIMS. The treatment happened at Safdarjung Hospital, and dragged on for two months. In the interim, I tried to report funds bungling in a government institute to the government. I was naïve and street-smart, as most Indians are. To take a break from the proceedings there, I watched my first film in Delhi. Once again at Nehru Place, but in the single screen that existed before the multiplex. It was a matinee show, and I was full of paratha and lassi. I hollered at 'Beedi Jalaile' with the crowd. Yes, 'Omkara' was India too. So were the crisp dialogues in 'Nayak' and the crazy joyride of 'Thiruda Thiruda'.
Trying to piece together an image of India through our cinema is like riding a super-speeding government bus down the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. You are comfortable, everything whizzes by outside, becoming clearer only if you look back, and you have no control over the ride. Quite nice, actually. There are the options of being able to view the country through one square frame, get engrossed, chat with others, or snore.
Later in 2006, I lived for a few months in West Vasai, on the outskirts of Mumbai. That's where I saw 'Fanaa', then walked from the rail station to a Chinese eatery at the other end of town along rain washed roads. Post dinner, I went off to explore what looked like interesting ruins in the woods. That's where I met a fishermen and his wife, also out walking. They had seen 'Fanaa' too. They told me I was in the historic Fort of Bassein, headed straight towards a creek that leads to the Arabian Sea. Then we all went and watched boat lights twinkle on Vasai Creek while we discussed Kashmir. We are Indians, no doubt about it.
After watching 'Jaan-e Mann' in Mohali, I debated with Microbiology researchers in their institute about Akshay Kumar while the kindly canteen owner fed us all the paneer in the world. In 2008, trying to buy Santosh Sivan's 'Before the Rains' in Bangalore introduced me to a Tamil shop manager who adored Bengali movies. Much information was exchanged in broken English on the latest pirated films in the market.
The Indian identity may be coffee table conversation, election agenda, or a shining new driver's license in a sweaty fist in exchange of some hard-earned cash. I don't know. Don't even pretend to. But in moments of doubt, I go watch a movie, and then talk to random strangers enthusiastically. It's better than any politician's inspiring speech, and it always, always works.